Emerging Church as “Empty Signifier”: Labels don’t fit because the container is Empty

Claim

The Emerging Church has always been called a conversation, and it is generally always misunderstood by those trying to define it? Why a conversation? And why such misunderstanding? (See the recent call not to have a statement of faith, the reminder of EC as conversation, and a friendly diagnosis of potential pitfalls [see especially Peter Rollins comment], all revealing the perplexing nature of the EC)

I suggest that the Emerging Church (conversation) is in the position of the ‘empty signifier’ which enables discursive transformations. The Emerging Church is an ‘empty signifier’ gathering together all the different protest directed at the modern church (both liberal and conservative) and it relationship with culture and politics. It is so difficult to define the EC because it in general is situated in a negative (empty) relationship with many different discourses (the discourse of conservative evangelicalism; mainline Protestantism, Religious Right, etc.). The EC is a signifier for something that does not yet exist (empty signifier); or rather, it designates something which all the other discourses can not yet talk about. Yet over time, the EC with change the discursive system enough (created alternative differentiations) that a definition will emerge.

(This understanding also helps to make sense of disagreements within the EC concerning allegations of ‘liberal’ theological hangovers, and ‘sectarian’ political engagement. This is occurring not so much because the is rampant liberalism or sectarianism with the EC, but because our discursive systems are transforming in relations to different primary oppositions.)

Questions: Why do you think it is so important that this is all a conversation, and that its so misunderstood?

Explanation

Let me explain: (these thoughts brought to you be Ernesto Laclua’s “Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipation(s).)

A discursive system (or conversation/language/language game) is constituted by oppositional differences, situating various relationships. Each element sets itself off as different than another element (class, race/ethnicity, political affiliation,) by means of certain markers (class= clothing, cars, houses; race/ethnicity= color of skin, traditional cultures, languages; politics= big/little government, welfare, Republican/Democrats). But these of course are not necessary relationship of differentiation, but merely contingent, and the discursive system is never able to fully close (totalize) or account for itself. And to this largely structuralist account, post-structuralists, of which Laclua is a part, notes that is always slippage and protest within a discursive system.

So, how do you question a discursive system? How do conversations change? Well different people and communities begin questioning the necessity of particular differentiations among various discourses (from questioning if there is any real difference between Democracts and Republicans; between theological conservatives and liberals; between American Empire and the EU). These particular struggles begin concretely as a differentiation from a certain element (theology= post-liberals and post-conserative from liberal/conservative; politics= the green or independent party from Democrat/Republican), but also function thereby to question the entire system (a leaving of modern theology in its liberal or conservative guises; leaving partisan politics).

Questioning the system always has this dual nature: both a particular struggle within the system, but also representing the universal struggle against the system. This move from particular embattlement to universal critique reveals the place of the ‘empty signifier’, reveals it as the rallying points for various different struggles. The signifier is empty because it is not fully identified with a particular struggle (a particular sign) but is freely floating between, or unifying, many struggles.

This I propose is how the EC is functioning with ecclesiastic systems (mainline and evangelical), disrupting the discursive coherence and creating an opportunity to ask different question, occupy different spaces, and arrange different relationships. All of this makes it exceedingly difficult to label, pin-down, or box in the EC. And even within the EC, I would say that Radical Orthodoxy, American Pragmatism, and the Duke School all function is a similar way as an ‘empty signifier’ transforming current discourses.

Again: Why do you think it is so important that this is all a conversation, and that its so misunderstood?

…Next up…“empty signifier vs. the empty shrine”: EC and American Political Discourse.